Shaolin Wooden Men Review
At 22 years of age, Jackie Chan had already appeared in approximately twenty features when he was hand-picked by Hong Kong producer/director Lo Wei to fill the void that Bruce Lee had left behind in the aftermath of his tragic death. The intent was to turn Chan into a movie megastar, which didn’t exactly go to plan in the two to three years he spent under Wei’s vigilant watch. Chan would later be catapulted to stardom when he briefly joined Ng See Yuen’s Seasonal Films, who had arranged to loan him from Wei. With Seasonal he churned out two highly regarded classics from Yuen Woo-ping, who would also quickly make his name: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and the inspirational Drunken Master.
When Chan returned to Lo Wei’s production company he was forced to star in a number of lacklustre projects between 1975 and 1979. However, Chan’s time spent with Lo Wei during this period wasn’t entirely without merit. Although Chan had yet been given the chance to branch out with his ideas by 1976, director Chen Chi-Hwa - who went on to work with him on no less than four other features in his career - gave him the opportunity to shine in one of his first major starring roles. The result was that Shaolin Wooden Men would become an entertaining revenge romp, offering some unique displays of combat, in addition to Chan’s now trademark physical comedy and likeable presence. Eventually Lo Wei would allow Chan to offer his creative talents with 78’s Spiritual Kung Fu, before assigning him director’s duty on Fearless Hyena in ’79. Shortly afterward Chan was prised away to Golden Harvest, under the guidance of Lo Wei collaborator Jimmy Wang Yu, and the rest as they say is history.
Jackie Chan plays a young man who goes by the name of mute, having not spoken since the death of his father at the hands of a mysterious assailant many years ago. Now, Mute trains to become a Shaolin disciple in order to perfect his skills as a martial artist, in the hopes of one day taking revenge on the man who made him an orphan. But, Mute’s life is a daily struggle: he’s put through a series of gruelling tests to prove to the monks that he has what it takes to become a part of their monastery. The training would ordinarily take several years before he’d even be allowed to learn Kung Fu techniques and subsequently engage the Shaolin Wooden Men as part of the monk’s ultimate test, but as good fortune would have it he befriends a drunken monk (Miu Tak San) and a nun (Cheung Bing Yuk), who kindly begin teaching him. One day he also happens to stumble across a prisoner named Fa Yu (Kam Kong), who is being held in the Shaolin dungeon. He befriends the man, who insists that once he’s perfected “Lion’s roar” he will escape. Intrigued by this, Mute wishes to be taught martial arts by Fa Yu. In exchange for food and wine Fa Yu begins to train Mute in secret, which ensures that Mute’s skill improves ten-fold and that he can indeed take on the wooden men. But no sooner does Mute impress the monks with his talent does Fa Yu escape and begins to cause trouble in town, with the added arrival of the leader of Green Dragon gang (Miu Tin), who Mute believes is the man responsible for his father’s death.
It’s a shame that Shaolin Wooden Men did in fact flop and no doubt contributed toward Chan’s frustration within the industry at the time. He wasn’t exactly being treated in a way more befitting of his talent, and Lo Wei was perhaps a little too expectant in assuming he’d pick up where Lee left off. Chan’s role here is that of a mute, which ordinarily might not seem all too demanding and yet he delivers a well balanced performance, with credit going to Chi-Hwa who obviously knew how to handle his promising young star (Wei on the other hand was content with just taking a back seat director’s credit). With little dramatic acting experience to his name, Chan portrays the role of Mute with a certain level of naivety. He lends his character enough warmth and innocent charm that the audience immediately gets behind him without question, not that Lo Wei was greatly concerned with how well his star pupil would deliver his lines.
As a film designed to further showcase Chan’s physical abilities, Shaolin Wooden Men builds naturally from a series of rigorous training exercises, during which Chan can be seen performing gruelling tasks. Moreover the action set pieces provide some of the first great examples of Jackie Chan’s wonderful sense of comedic timing. With his Buster Keaton influences all too apparent, Chan performs various pratfalls and is never ashamed of making a fool of himself if it means that it will get a good laugh; of course it’s this mentality, delivered with much humility, that ultimately turned him into such a lovable screen icon. This picture is also significant for being one of the first films where Chan gets to grips with the famous drunken boxing style (complete with drunken monk teacher) which would be greatly expanded upon in his later films, in addition to some of the more familiar snake techniques. Chan’s physical prowess is as impressive as ever, and he’s allowed a little free reign to show off some of his trademark moves. This gift for choreography and quick learning would eventually ensure that Chan earned a lot more say in how his future projects would play out.
There is a fair amount of inventiveness in Shaolin Wooden Men. In case you’re wondering there actually are wooden men, which turn out to be strategically designed implements of comical terror, thanks to some insanely creative monks who like to put their pupils through nightmarish situations. These chaps reside at the sunny named “Wooden Men Lane” and are the ultimate test for any aspiring Shaolin disciple. When it comes down to it they actually appear quite rubbish: flailing their arms a bit in predictable fashion, with the occasional random kick to the face. It’s quite a spectacle though to see Chan go up against such a foe, which isn’t something that’s all too often seen these days outside of videogames. Sometimes it feels that there just aren’t enough wooden men in contemporary Hong Kong cinema, although Ekin Cheng sometimes comes damn close. Fnarr.
Of course that doesn’t mean that Shaolin Wooden Men is greatly different from your standard revenge flicks that were happily doing the rounds throughout most of the seventies. Indeed the plot couldn’t be any more routine. Jackie Chan finds himself in a situation that would be echoed in further films to come: the underdog of the piece, who must overcome obstacles laid out before him, from bullies to strict monks who eventually mould him into the hero he’ll inevitably become. The first half of Shaolin Wooden Men carries itself at a nice pace, with the focus being on Mute developing his skills through his new master and ultimately taking on the wooden men of the film’s title. Once cleared the film then takes a dramatic turn as a kidnapping and the arrival of an enemy forces Mute to exact his revenge, and while a twist concerning a major character can be guessed early on the film does manage to throw in other pleasant surprises in relation to characters who may not quite be as they initially appear. But hey, those of you reading, who are no doubt fans, are perhaps not interested in just how formulaic half the film is. The treats are in enjoying the charming score, which shields a slightly dark undercurrent, and in spotting familiar faces such as Hwang Jang Lee and Yuen Biao - part of an impressive alumni who take part in some wonderfully energetic fight sequences; and boy Chen Chi-Hwa loves to milk them for all they’re worth. Like all classic Jackie Chan films the story culminates with an epic fight between hero and villain, and although it isn’t nearly as iconic (though a tad poignant) as Chan’s later run-ins with Jang Lee and Wong In-Sik, it offers enough variety to thoroughly please.
With Hong Kong Legends’ rapid decline in providing meaty bonus material for some of their more recent releases it seems that they’re shifting their focus toward the gimmicky. And so here we get a bare bones release that enjoys the tag “Ultra-bit Edition”
And what of that Ultra-bit claim? Well, I don’t actually know what it means, but the Fortune Star remaster has kindly been given an anamorphic transfer which stays faithful to its 2.35:1 ratio and it does look decent enough. For a thirty year old film Shaolin Wooden Men looks especially nice, although there are several areas in which full restoration is pretty much out of the question. There’s a fair amount of dust on the print, mainly white specks that are far more intrusive in the first five minutes than anywhere else, though they do stick around for the duration. Once the film gets past its opening round things fair a little better, with only the occasional spot of damage. Toward the end there are a couple of noticeable defects which are clearly inherent to the negative, such as slight discolouration and off cuts. In terms of how well this is all handled, it’s perhaps as good as can be expected. Detail is fine, although we do have the continual annoyance in having some edge enhancement. One curiosity though is the overly pink skin tones, which my colleague Matt Shingleton often referes to as “The lobster effect”. HKL have had a long tendancy to up the red tints in this area, whereas the original Fortune Star releases exhibit no such thing. An anomaly I cannot explain, but an area that is certainly amongst the biggest offenders on the disc; flesh tones can seem adequate at one point, then overly red, or altogether pale. Black levels and contrast could certainly be a little better as well, showcasing some slight boosting, but they’re not too bothersome.
This is the bit where the fans get a little enraged:
HKL’s packaging and menu states English and Chinese sound options, which has no doubt caused a little confusion for those wondering if HKL has presented the original Mandarin audio or done a runner with Cantonese. I’m sorry to say that they have provided Cantonese all the way. Shaolin Wooden Men arrived a couple of years before Cantonese became the predominent movie language in Hong Kong, and it was shot with Mandarin dialect. The soundtrack was re-recorded later on in Cantonese, but I imagine that purists won’t give two hoots. Certainly the Cantonese track is an original, to a certain extent, but it’s one that has also been unduly and needlessly tinkered with.
For my viewing session I took in the original mono track, because I had no desire to sit through anything less, or more, however you look at it. But there’s still a downside to this, being that it’s a downmix from the included 5.1 track, which means it includes all the little HKL effects. At best the track is functional; there’s a constant background noise in the form of a slight hiss, while dialogue and sound effects come across quite hollow. As for the 5.1 tracks I did sample them briefly and they’re not exactly overwhelming. HKL have tried to filter out some noise and clean up things however, but by doing so they’ve gone the extra mile and messed about with sound effects, specifically thuds and thumps, which are a little distracting during the fight sequences. There’s nothing here to bowl over A/V enthusiasts, or fans who like their tracks free from tampering. The English dub is on par in terms of effects and I believe it’s taken from the original recording.
Optional English subtitles are included and as far as I can tell they offer a fine translation. As for names, which HKL are known to change from time to time, I don’t know if Chan’s character is meant to be called Dumb boy or Mute boy, but you lot can debate that amongst yourselves. Timing is good and the titles are free from grammatical errors.
Shaolin Wooden Men makes for a fine starring vehicle as part of Jackie Chan’s early career, fitting quite snugly into the pantheon of similarly themed revenge flicks of the late seventies in which he starred. Switch off and enjoy the twists and turns, pleasant humour, loads of cackling and of course wooden men with balls and chains for hands, who fall down easily and look quite funny because they can’t get themselves back up again.